Starlink satellite internet: Should you sign up?
It was the shining star of the cyclone response, but what is Starlink?
You might not have heard of Starlink before Cyclone Gabrielle, but after parts of the North Island were cut off without any way to communicate, it was hard to escape talk of it.
Before Gabrielle, early adopters had already signed up for the internet service by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX. After Gabrielle, Noel Leeming stores – the only physical store to sell the Starlink hardware in New Zealand – had to order more to keep up with demand.
How Starlink helped
Gisborne mayor Rehette Stoltz said she never expected Cyclone Gabrielle to hit the town as hard as it did.
At about 5am on February 14, after Gabrielle had raged through Gisborne overnight, Stoltz made her way from her home where she’d lost power to the council office.
“I was listening to the radio and heard them say they can’t reach the Gisborne mayor’s office. When I got in, I realised we were completely cut off – no electricity, no internet.”
As day broke, people outside of the East Coast town were growing increasingly worried for their Gisborne family members they couldn’t reach.
It’s still a bit of a blur for the mayor, how she came to be using a Starlink connection. She suspects the Air Force flew one in to be used at the Civil Defence Emergency Centre.
“It meant I could do media interviews and Facebook live videos to let the rest of the country know we were ok.”
But she still couldn’t communicate with people in Gisborne and it was becoming very important that she did, as the main water pipe into the town had been significantly damaged and water needed to be conserved.
Those who already had a Starlink connection began sharing their password with strangers and Stoltz said by day two they were available to be used by everyone at the library and theatre.
“It was an absolute lifesaver. It connected us up like we had normal internet,” Stoltz said.
Starlink would always be available as a back-up now. “We are vulnerable. We have one water pipe, one fibre line and one electricity line coming into Gisborne so it’s going to happen again.”
What is Starlink?
Rural folk will know satellite internet isn’t new. Paul Brislen, chief executive of the Telecommunications Forum, explained Starlink is a low earth orbit (or LEO) internet satellite system.
“These LEO satellites are very small and cheap to produce and launch when you own a rocket company. But the downside is they tend to fall out of the sky. They have to put up hundreds at a time because many come down quickly,” Brislen said.
SpaceX has about 4,000 satellites in space – sometimes in the night sky you can see a train of them not long after they’ve been launched and before they make their way into their final orbit position.
To get started with a Starlink connection you first need to buy the hardware. Noel Leeming started selling the Starlink hardware at the end of last year and you can also order it from the Starlink website.
We’ve seen the cost change a lot since we started looking at Starlink in March. Back then the standard kit cost $520. In April, Noel Leeming dropped the price to $199 but, at the time of writing, it’s now $729.
The Starlink website is selling the standard kit for $199 to rural customers and $729 for the rest of the country. However, a lot of urban addresses across New Zealand are deemed rural by Starlink.
The pack you get consists of an amusingly named Dishy McFlatface that goes outside, either on a stand on the ground or attached to a wall or roof. It has to be in a spot that has a clear view of the sky.
Dishy orients itself into the best position during set-up and starts talking to the Starlink satellites. The satellites also communicate with one of the six Starlink ground stations throughout New Zealand.
You plug Dishy into a router that sits inside your home. Some people are happy for the cable to run through an open window, but a kit also allows you to put it through a wall.
You set it up using the Starlink app and, after the free month trial, a subscription costs $159 each month. There are also more expensive roaming options that aren’t tied to an address so you can get internet in a campervan or on a boat, for example.
Is it a disaster kit must-have?
When people couldn’t use their normal internet because the cell towers didn’t have power and fibre lines were damaged in the cyclone, Starlink kept working.
If you’re planning to buy a Starlink kit and have it sitting in storage as a back-up option to your usual internet in case of a disaster, you’ll need to have an account set up before you lose power.
That means either paying the fee each month or just activating your account when a cyclone warning is given. But that won’t work for disasters that don’t give any warning, such as an earthquake.
The router needs power to work so you’d need to also buy a generator or look at alternative options.
Brislen likes the idea of communities coming together and buying a Starlink kit and a generator to share when it’s needed in the future. “Whenever something happens the marae tends to be the place people congregate so I’d like to see fibre to the marae beefed up and give them all a generator and a satellite dish so they could become the heart of the Civil Defence response. I think there’s something there.”
What to consider
What else is available
Brislen said Starlink and other LEO systems are the future for remote and rural communities that can’t get fibre internet.
“The technology is fantastic. You can be in the middle of nowhere or drive off into the wilderness and still have internet.”
But Brislen doesn’t see it replacing fibre in places where it’s available. “The future for everyone else is fibre. It gives you vastly more capacity than a satellite service,” he said.
The Commerce Commission included Starlink in its latest Measuring Broadband report for the first time in May. It reported peak hour download speeds were above 120Mbps, compared with an average of 9Mbps for ADSL and 33Mbps for VDSL (both copper-based) and 25Mbps for 4G wireless broadband in rural areas.
“We can have seven adults in our house using fibre and it doesn’t skip a beat. If you try doing that with satellite you’re likely to run into trouble quite quickly,” Brislen said.
“But if you can’t get fibre where you are and you want broadband connectivity for doing banking or ordering stock then I think it would be fabulous.”
Where you live
Ulrich Speidel, a lecturer in computer science at Auckland University, said where you live will affect how good your connection is in two ways.
You’ll have better internet if:
You live near a ground station
That’s because your Dishy and the station need to be able to see the same satellite. “If you live close, Dishy and the ground station will have a wider choice of satellites that both can see and can pick the one with the lowest load,” Speidel said.
“In the North Island, these ground stations are in Puwera south of Whangarei, Te Hana near Wellsford, and Clevedon southeast of Auckland, and in the South Island, they are in Hinds southeast of Ashburton, Cromwell, and Awarua near Bluff.”
You live in a neighbourhood that doesn’t have a lot of Starlink connections
Starlink limits the number of users in an area, so before signing up you need to check an availability map.
Even if your area isn’t at its limit, a lot of connections nearby can affect your connection as the satellites will be busier. Brislen said: “It’s a contended service. So just like in the days of copper lines, if all the kids come home from school and use the internet the speed drops.”
He said some New Zealanders had found their speed drop since buying Starlink.
“You see it on the Starlink New Zealand Facebook page – they’ll sign up thinking they’re going to get something stable but it degrades until they pop up more satellites.”
Where you’d put it
Speidel said the angle that Starlink satellites orbit Earth creates a special problem for New Zealand.
“The sky between the South Island and our subantarctic islands is where you’ll find the most Starlink satellites in our part of the world,” he said. “That’s good news for Southlanders but not so great news for the winterless north.”
He said his lab’s own Dishy only ever looks for satellites in the southern sky even when he has tried to force it to face north by blocking the southern sky. “That’s very bad news for would-be users whose only place to put Dishy is on their small north-facing balcony under a large soffit – Starlink won’t work for them, at least for now.”
If you have a problem with your telco in New Zealand, you can complain to the Telecommunications Dispute Resolution (TDR), which will investigate the issue. All the major telcos are members; but not Starlink.
“Customers who do have issues will have to resort to the Disputes Tribunal instead,” said Brislen.
He said they also don’t contribute towards the Telecommunications Development Levy, which funds the relay service for hearing impaired people and improvements to the 111 emergency service.